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Wednesday, September 03, 2008,10:57 PM
Black Knights
Has pop culture paved the way for Barack Obama to become our next president?

By David Walker

No matter the final outcome of the general election in November, Sen. Barack Obama has already made history. The historical discussion of Obama's success on the campaign trail would not be complete without mentioning the trailblazers who came before him, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mary McLeod Bethune and Shirley Chisholm, the first black major-party candidate for president of the United States.

But while everyone is quick to point out the civil rights leaders and political movers and shakers that have paved the way for Obama, not nearly enough attention has been paid to a film about a killer comet on a collision course with Earth, a popular television series on a network owned by notorious conservative Rupert Murdoch, or how Darth Vader was once commander in chief.

Entertainment in all of its forms -- sports, literature, popular music, television and film -- has always been a crucial component of American culture, serving as a historical marker of where society has been as well as an indicator of where it is headed. Historically, popular entertainment has always played an especially pivotal role in shaping the perception of black Americans. From Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball to Will Smith repeatedly saving the world in films like "Men in Black" and "I Am Legend," pop culture has, for better and for worse, been a primary source of information that determines how mainstream America perceives black people. And for Obama, pop culture, especially film and television, may just help him win the election in November.

"America is ready for a black president because we've seen them before. Black presidents, in fact, have been our most awesome presidents ever: Morgan Freeman in 'Deep Impact' and Dennis Haysbert in '24,'" wrote Joel Stein in a Los Angeles Times editorial. "And their approval ratings -- box office grosses and Nielsen ratings, the only approval that matters in the U.S. -- have been huge."

The fictional presidents portrayed by Freeman and Haysbert have gone a long way to popularizing the concept of a black American in the Oval Office, but it was actor James Earl Jones who played the first black president in 1972's "The Man," based on Irving Wallace's novel and adapted for the screen by "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling. When the president of the United States and the speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident, and the terminally ill vice president abdicates power, the role of commander in chief falls unexpectedly on the shoulders of the Senate president pro tempore, Douglass Dilman (Jones). Faced with a choice of being his own man or serving as the puppet president others want him to be, Dilman wrestles with a series of complex racial issues that include a black American student accused of assassinating the defense minister of South Africa.

"The Man" deals specifically with the issues of race and racism as it relates to the presidency. Produced in the wake of the civil rights movement, when black power had manifested itself cinematically in the blaxploitation films of the era, "The Man" is very much a product of the 1970s. It is a byproduct of the politically charged films of the late 1950s and '60s (many of which starred Sidney Poitier), which helped to change the way blacks were portrayed in mass media.

In the world of film, Poitier did more to clear the way for Obama than any other actor. Poitier was the first black actor to be successfully cast as a hero in mainstream American cinema. The Bahamian Poitier's career began in the 1950s with films like "No Way Out," "Edge of the City" and "The Defiant Ones," all of which dealt head-on with race relations in America. In 1964 he won an Oscar for his leading role in "Lilies of the Field," and, by 1967, the year he starred in "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "To Sir, With Love" -- all racially charged films -- Poitier was the No. 1 box office actor in the country.

The issues of race and racism that fueled most of Poitier's films and also informed "The Man" became minor points in the following decades. When Freeman co-starred in 1998's "Deep Impact" as President Tom Beck, no mention of his race was ever made in the film. With a comet on a collision course with Earth threatening all life on the planet, matters of race and politics took a back seat to special effects. In a performance that was calm, cool and compassionate in the face impending doom, Freeman came to embody everything that America looks for in a leader. Film critic Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review of "Deep Impact," "Morgan Freeman makes a fine president of the United States, with a thoughtful manner and just the right reassuring television presence."

With "The Man" never having been released on home video, Freeman's President Beck has enjoyed a high approval rating among fictional presidents, making him one of the most beloved and effective leaders of the United States of Cinema. But for all of President Beck's popularity, he is outshined by another fictional leader, President David Palmer.

Named the No. 1 pick for fictional president in an Entertainment Weekly reader's poll earlier this year, President Palmer (Haysbert) from the FOX television series "24" has enjoyed far more favorable ratings than the current leader of the free world. Serving as president for two seasons on "24," Palmer became a crucial pop culture icon that helped make the concept of a black president a bit more realistic. "If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people," Haysbert said in an Associated Press article. "And I mean the American people from across the board -- from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base -- to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first."

While Haysbert, Freeman and, to a lesser extent, Jones have all helped in creating a public perception of a black president, they have not been the only actors to tackle the role. On "24," actor D.B. Woodside's Wayne Palmer, the brother of David Palmer, would go on to become president, but his character has not proven to be as popular as his sibling.

Other black actors have played the president in more comedic roles, most notably Chris Rock as Mays Gilliam in "Head of State," an uneven comedy that's silly at best and not nearly as funny as Dave Chappelle's performances as the president on his television series "Chappelle's Show." Ernie Hudson, best known for his work in "Ghostbusters," stepped into the role of President Westwood in the unintentionally funny B-movie thriller "Stealth Fighter." Tommy "Tiny" Lister played the futuristic President Lindberg in the science fiction film "The Fifth Element." The pinnacle of the comedic commanders in chief would have to be former professional wrestler and porn star President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) in "Idiocracy," the stupidest president -- at least stupidest fictional president -- of all time.

The comedic portrayal of black presidents recalls a time when the most acceptable roles for black Americans were those of jesters and buffoons. As entertaining as Crews' President Camacho may be, he ultimately conjures a negative image of blacks that recalls the performances of actors like Stepin Fetchit, whose entire career was built around comical stereotypes. These performances, amusing though some of them may be, have done little to help Obama's cause.

Whether or not Obama is elected president of the United States in November remains to be seen. But the one thing that is clear is that the image of black Americans in pop culture has changed considerably since D.W. Griffith's racially inflammatory 1915 film "Birth of a Nation." Those changes can be tracked and measured with a line that leads from Paul Robeson to Smith, twisting and turning along the way to include everyone from Robinson to Poitier to Muhammad Ali to Richard Pryor, and perhaps leading to the first black president of the United States.

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